Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer plans to invest at least as aggressively in the 2016 presidential election as he did last year, when he became the biggest individual donor on either side of American politics.
“I would be shocked if we didn’t,” he said.
Asked if he had a dollar figure in mind for how much he was prepared to spend in the presidential year, Steyer said, “I really don’t. … We’re going to see what we can do.
“My experience in political campaigns is you never know what you’re going to spend.”
Steyer is undeterred by critics who say he squandered more than $75 million of his own money supporting Democratic candidates who promised tough action on climate change — half of whom lost — during the 2014 election cycle.
The California-based former hedge fund manager, who said recently that he had quit investing “cold turkey” to focus full-time on climate change, refutes this charge of failure. He points out that last year was “an absolutely terrible” one for the Democratic Party, which lost control of the Senate to Republicans.
Steyer says it stands to reason that fewer than half the candidates he supported won their races, and he takes some credit for persuading Americans to take climate change more seriously.
Indeed, polls show Americans are more worried about climate change now, after concern about the issue dropped during the financial crisis.
“If you think that Americans just changed their mind on this topic by chance, I would tell you that we disagree,” Steyer said.
“The fact of the matter is we have had a chance to … change how people think about this. It’s not us alone, but we were definitely part of that process.”
Steyer sees the 2016 presidential election as his greatest opportunity yet to turn more Americans into climate change activists and to pressure candidates to present detailed plans to reach his target of getting 50 percent of U.S. power from clean energy sources by 2030.
Democratic strategist Joe Trippi says Steyer’s millions have a better chance of moving the electoral needle in a presidential year, with a larger and younger electorate that is more likely to care about climate change, than they would in an off-year, where the smaller turnout favors conservatives.
“Young people are certainly interested in [climate change], and they are certainly going to be determinative, not just for the presidential but for House and Senate races,” Trippi said.
Global warming “may not be the deciding issue of the 2016 election,” but it could energize enough young voters to make a “key difference,” Trippi added.
Steyer has given all presidential candidates the same challenge: Show how they would move America to his 50 percent clean energy target. But realistically, Steyer only holds sway over Democratic candidates Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE, Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE, and Martin O’Malley.
All three have been eager to prove they are committed to this “50 by 30” target, Steyer said, but the billionaire wants to see more detail from each candidate before he endorses anyone.
“We’re asking them to do it specifically and to meet certain goals, because the last thing we need is vague, inchoate, good intentions,” Steyer said.
Another victory for Steyer is that all serious Democratic candidates for president now oppose the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the Obama administration has yet to rule on. Steyer’s group has made the opposition to Keystone a litmus test for whether it would lend financial support to a candidate.
Clinton had suggested in the past that she was “inclined” to support the pipeline’s development, but she recently announced she would oppose it and has been accused by Republicans of flip-flopping on the issue to pander to far-left Democratic primary voters.
“Keystone is really a trophy,” Steyer said. “In the broadest sense, if you read why Mrs. Clinton ultimately came out against the pipeline, it was as a choice to go forward on a clean energy economy.”
Steyer has already spent at least $5 million this campaign cycle to convince voters to pressure politicians on climate change. That’s a major investment at this early stage that puts him on pace with the biggest super-PAC donors on the Republican side.
Last week he announced a “seven-figure” advertising campaign in early-voting states, and his super-PAC NextGen Climate is investing heavily in digital technology and has opened offices in four key states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and Ohio.
NextGen has hired a number of digital experts who are veterans of the past two Obama presidential campaigns, and the group is investing heavily in social media outreach.
One such tactic involved Pope Francis’s recent visit to the U.S., during which the climate super-PAC used location-based filters on Snapchat to target voters who might be receptive to the pope’s messages about global warming.
Steyer admits he is keenly aware that he will face strong opposition from the right in 2016, and he takes especially seriously the influence of the conservative donor network organized by billionaire industrialists Charles and -David Koch.
NextGen ran ads attacking the Koch brothers in the midterm election season, but asked whether he would do so again, Steyer said he is now less interested in negativity and more concerned about telling a positive story about why people should care about climate change.
“Their influence is gigantic,” Steyer said of the Kochs.
“They’re talking about spending a billion dollars in 2016 and in my experience when they talk about spending X they usually spend 1.5X.
“So how seriously do I take that? That’s a gigantic, unbelievable amount of money. ... I take them extremely seriously.”
The Koch network plans to raise about $900 million for all its political and philanthropic activities this campaign cycle, but Charles Koch told Forbes he expects only about $300 million of that will be spent on electoral politics.
“We have always tried to characterize this as a David and Goliath fight,” said Steyer of his battle with the Kochs.
“They’re much bigger. They have much more money,” Steyer added. “Of course that’s important. … [But] we have to rely on the fact that the facts are on our side, the morality is on our side and the economics are on our side.
“And, you know if that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have a chance in hell.”